The Light & the Dark (Revisited)

It’s been a year and three days since I returned from Haiti on one of the greatest experiences of my life, since I saw such beauty and chaos, such light and such dark, existing side-by-side in a country I have come to love dearly. One of the greatest lessons I learned was how distinct the boundaries between good and evil are. It’s tangible in Haiti, in a way that it isn’t tangible in our cozy, comfy, middle-class American lives.

A year later, I’m even more thankful for my experience. It’s not been an easy year.

Five days after I posted that blog about Haiti, I received a terrible phone call. I was in the checkout line at Publix when my dad called. I hurriedly answered and said I would call him back, then walked out to my car. From the way Dad had said “Hello,” I knew this would not be an easy phone call. In my car, in the darkened parking lot, gripping the steering wheel, I listened to my dad tell me that my uncle–his sister’s husband, our neighbor, our loved one–had taken his own life. The gasping, aching hole was immediate, the sobs wrenching. I was, fortunately, on my way to my small group at the time, so minutes later, after I’d composed myself enough to drive, I headed straight there, to my family who comforted me and prayed with me, even while my biological family grieved far away.

The next night, I made the three-hour trip home, moving between numbness and uncertainty to crying and questioning. When I pulled into the driveway late at night, my parents came out to meet me. They had news, updates: my uncle, who had long been an evolutionist, had been attending church with my aunt and cousin. He had accepted Christ just two months before and was scheduled to have been baptized the following Sunday.

I collapsed on the ground in grateful tears. Here, then, was the light in the middle of so much darkness. Here was the sliver of hope. For whatever doctrine exists on suicide and unpardonable sins, we at least had hope when there had been none before. God’s glory was brighter than the darkness.

Just two and a half weeks later, however, the darkness threatened again. Another phone call from Dad, another intuition from the “Hello.” My grandfather–my mom’s dad–had been found dead that day of a massive heart attack or stroke. My only grandfather–my Papa Ting, my funny little old grandfather–was gone forever. The man who’d been proud to have me as his first grandchild, the man who’d financed much of my trip to Haiti, the man whose imperfections often made his family life difficult–was gone.

I made the trip home again, and this time I arrived physically sick–dizzy, nauseated, weak. I felt the effects of the compounded losses to my bones. The next day arrived, filled with trips to flower shops and the funeral home, and finally, the visitation, where I stood in a line for three hours, greeting hundreds of people, each of whom had a different story. I smiled, I laughed, I explained who and where and what I am now. Visitations aren’t for the family to grieve; they’re for celebration. And they’re exhausting.

The next day was Valentine’s Day–cold, rainy, gray–perfectly ironic for a funeral. The tension between grieving for my own loss and supporting my mother and grandmother, for whom the loss spread over decades and generations. And the oddness of smiling for photos because–for the first time in years–the whole family was gathered together, even in such a harsh setting.

The next day was the hardest of all: leaving my family, terrified that yet another loss would happen and I wouldn’t be there. Driving back to teach a class I wasn’t at all prepared for. Driving back to deadlines for my thesis, wondering if I should even bother trying to finish (after all, I’d attended the funerals for two loved ones before finishing chapter one–what else could happen before I finished all five chapters?). I almost emailed my advisor to withdraw and then realized I needed something tangible to lose myself in.

My thesis became my life. I wrote fast; I wrote long; I wrote well. One hundred pages in six and a half weeks. Finishing my thesis, graduating, and another ending also felt like a loss even as other celebrated with me. My purpose was gone alone with so many other losses.

The darkness of those few weeks in January and February–even though they were tinged with so much light–still managed to overcast the rest of my year. I didn’t care about much, and my heart felt aimless and wandering. In the fall, a hectic semester and students who weren’t always appreciative made me question my sanity and my calling. Did I want to teach ungrateful students for the rest of my life? What was I working so hard for? Would any of this ultimately matter?

Then, at Thanksgiving, when I was cherishing the time with family, we learned of another loss: my mom’s pastor, who’d been fighting brain tumors for two years, had finally passed away. At his funeral, I felt the love of so many people for him and I also profoundly missed my grandmother, my uncle, my grandfather.

And New Year’s Day, I awoke to a text from Mom. My cousin Todd, just a few days younger than me, had been wheelchair-bound his whole life after being born with spina bifida. He’d had surgery for an abdominal infection a few weeks before, and his health had been declining. He passed away the morning of New Year’s Day, just 27 years old. I missed his funeral but got a full recap from Mom: a celebration of a life that was worthy, even in the midst of hardship.

Here, in this new year, I’ve found myself reflecting on one of the toughest years of my life. So many losses, so much pain, so much hardship. In my life, in the lives of my family and others I care for, in the world. I’ve sensed the darkness in so much: the global disasters and tragedies, the national government issues, the scandals, the brokenness.

I’ve never felt the darkness so profoundly before. I know this is because of Haiti. You can’t walk through the streets of Jacmel or drive through the streets of Port-au-Prince and not believe that evil is real and present and powerful. And I cannot live knowing that evil is real without understanding that God’s power and might are greater and stronger and more beautiful than anything I can even comprehend. This year of darkness and brokenness has sometimes overwhelmed me; however, the good that’s come out of it is beautiful and wonderful and worth it. For the first time in years, I feel unity within my family–on both sides, my mom’s and my dad’s. The Gambrells have returned to our tradition of celebrating Christmas together, which fell by the wayside when my grandmother, our matriarch, was ill. The loss has brought us together again, and now we celebrate the next generation that will come when my cousin Whitney has her first child in March. On my mom’s side of the family, we were all together on Christmas day, and I heard for the first time in a long time “I love you” pass from sibling to sibling; I hugged cousins I’ve rarely seen in past years, and I feel a bit of hope that my grandfather’s death has brought us all together again. I’ve seen my family take care of one another and love one another, and while I’m sad that it’s taken loss to make this happen, I’m grateful that it’s happening nonetheless.

I have spent much of this year fearful, anxious, and worried about what the future holds and how much my life matters. I’ve seen a lot of the brokenness and wondered if wholeness were possible. I’ve questioned tragedies and grieved loss.

And now it’s a new year, a time of rebirth. And while life is hard and sin inflicts pain and hurt, God is real and true. I have seen darkness and death point toward life and light and love. I have seen unity come out of the pain. God’s love is strongest when it overcomes the pain of our fallen world. I found this truth in Haiti and carried it back home with me. In those few weeks in early January last year, when I wondered why I had to return to America and how I could hold on to what I learned in Haiti, I had no idea what was coming. I certainly didn’t expect the year that I had. But I’m grateful for His timing, for His mercy, and for the way He cares for His children. I’m grateful for a new year in which to see His glory shine and to worship him in new and unexpected ways. And I’m so thankful that His life shines so brightly and overcomes the darkness of this world.

The Light & the Dark

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1.5)

Sixteen days ago, I arrived home from Haiti. I brought home several hundred digital photos, a pound of whole dark roast coffee beans, and a deeper understanding of the nature of God. I left behind part of my heart.

I’m planning on posting several entries about my experience in Haiti, but when I sat down to decide what to write about first, one image came to mind. Sadly, it isn’t a physical image, but a memory that I can describe only in mere words.

On Monday, Jan. 2, two days before we left Haiti, our team accompanied Mrs. Sarah, the missionary with whom we were working, to downtown Jacmel, a city on the southern coast. We’d spent most of our week with the teachers at a nearby school or attending church services at Hosanna Ministries or spending quality time together at the mission house, so our team was pretty excited to see the actual city. Even with all the tragedy and poverty Haiti has experienced, beauty remains:

The French Quarter of New Orleans was modeled after Jacmel, and some of the older buildings are magnificent.

It’s all so very Caribbean. I love it!

We drove through downtown, perilously found a place to park, and headed to the market. Naively, I had imagined a scene similar to the market in downtown Charleston, but poorer and dirtier. Surely among the food vendors, someone would be selling crafts and jewelry. My mental image was so far removed from reality.

I have no pictures of the Jacmel market because, first, I was afraid my camera would be stolen in the crowd of people and, second, I felt like taking pictures would be exploiting these Haitian people somehow. The market was the dirtiest place I’ve ever been to and far worse than I could have even fathomed. Rotting food covered the ground, mixed in with trash and standing water. Raw meet sat on the tables, covered in flies and filth. Vendors packed every available space, trying to sell anything they could, and everyone stared at the white people pushing through the crowds. A few people greeted us in Creole, but most glared or murmured or cackled.

This scene, in the midst of this beautiful city, just one block away from the most beautiful ocean I’ve ever seen!

(This beach is actually a few miles away, but you get the idea.)

I couldn’t remove the scene from my mind. Never before have I seen a more perfect analogy for the kingdom of God. God created perfection, a beautiful Eden, a Caribbean island with white sand beaches, palm trees, balmy weather, and water the color of jewels. And man’s sin and filth has the potential to destroy such perfection. But if I walked away from the market, I could leave behind the sin and filth and witness God’s glory once more. I could leave behind the darkness and return to His light. This is image that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I left the market that day.

In Haiti, I felt much more sensitive to the distinction between darkness and light. In the United States, we’re comfortable, we’re complacent, and we don’t often believe that demons hold so much power. In Haiti, though, I met people who’d been possessed or oppressed by demons, and I heard testimony of those who’d been redeemed. Supernatural beings–be they divine or demonic–hold incredible power in Haiti. Those who’ve accepted salvation seem to radiate so much peace and light, but those who still live in darkness appear so defeated. The market in Jacmel and the streets of Port-au-Prince reveal so much destruction, at odds with the beautiful skyline and coast. The kingdom of God perseveres, even while others remain enslaved to sin.

God is moving in Haiti. He is calling His children to Him, and He is sending others, like my team, as his emissaries. I cannot deny that God called me to spend that week in Haiti, and I’m praying that He’ll send me back there again. Meanwhile, may I continue to testify about what I’ve seen in Haiti so that the name of my Father may be forever exalted!